Artist Portrays Simple, Rural Life

Daughter of Indonesian painter Affandi follows her legendary father

SLIVERS of moonlight spill through a canopy of banana fronds, man-ferns, and trees laden with huge jackfruit. ``Red bananas,'' says Kartika Affandi K"oberl pointing into the darkness. ``They're very rare. You can only find them in the sultan's kraton [the palace in Yogyakarta]. And here,'' she adds with a mischievous giggle.

The jungle parts farther on to reveal a modest two-room bamboo bungalow beside a stream. The roof is sugar-cane thatch. ``We have electricity now, one year,'' says Kartika's Austrian husband, Gerhard.

In the tight living/bedroom quarters, two men are attempting to fix the videocassette player. ``This is the fourth trip. Each time they clean the heads. I'm thinking these are the cleanest heads in all of Indonesia,'' comments Mr. K"oberl with a hint of frustration.

This simple home near a farming village outside of Yogyakarta, Java's cultural heart, keeps Indonesia's most famous contemporary female painter close to the subject she finds most inspiring: ``the daily challenges of rural life nearly finished by modern civilization.''

That may mean an elegant Brahman bullock or a wizened farm woman. But as a vegetarian whose views are based on the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, Kartika also sees her work as a way of exposing injustice.

``When you eat meat in the city, you won't see how the farmer is cruel. How he ties the legs of three or four live chickens to a bamboo stick. They hang upside down for hours as he rides a bicycle to the market.''

Kartika's paintings of village life are selling well. At an exhibition in Jakarta in November 1989, 12 were bought at prices ranging from $4,450 to $8,350. This year, exhibitions of her work are planned in Malaysia, Canada, the United States, and Australia. But it wasn't always the case.

For years, Kartika's fame derived not from the greatness of her art but from her life. She's the daughter of Affandi, Indonesia's world-known expressionist painter. Although his name has opened doors, it isn't easy following in the footsteps of a national legend - especially if you're a Buddhist woman with a seventh-grade education in a country that is 92 percent Muslim.

Married at 17, Kartika had eight children and two miscarriages by the time she was 28. Her husband had a history of infidelity and without seeking her consent, as is required by Muslim law, he took a second wife. (Today, Indonesian law is stricter. Not only is written permission from the first wife necessary, the employer must also consent and the groom must be able to afford the wedding celebration.)

Angered by her husband's actions, for several years she asked him to behave or give her a divorce. Along the way, she decided to begin painting again. ``I don't want to have this feeling that I'm only a woman, [that] I can only have children,'' she recalls. Under her father's tutelage she had done some painting before she married.

It's not easy for a woman to get a divorce under Islamic law.

``She spent four years appearing in Islamic court once every two weeks before she was awarded the divorce. That made her famous as a feminist,'' says Astri Wright, an American working on an Indonesian art book and co-curator of an exhibition of Indonesian contemporary artists planned for late 1990-91 in the United States.

Kartika's work is inevitably compared to her father's. Generally, it is softer, sweeter, more typically Indonesian in the sense of downplaying conflict and negative scenes. One male Yogya artist comments bluntly, ``Kartika lacks the fire of her father.'' But two of her most powerful pieces, ``Rebirth'' and ``The Beginning,'' have feminist overtones and certainly could not be described as lacking fire.

Kartika concedes that until ``Papi'' stopped painting two years ago because of illness, there was ``healthy competition'' between them. And she freely acknowledges the differences. For example, off and on for 25 years Affandi had painted one poor, sad beggar woman.

But Kartika's portrait of her reveals not a beggar but an old woman with a face full of joy. The difference is that ``I spoke with her. And she told me her happiest time [in life was] when she went to Sumatra with her husband to clear the forest.''

Kartika has no studio in her bamboo hut. Like her father, she wades into the rice paddies or stands in the marketplace to capture her subjects. Often villagers gather, and she chatters and jokes with them while she works.

``There's a nice flow between socializing and solitary moments of concentration,'' says Ms. Wright.

She paints with her fingers or directly from the tubes onto the canvas - a technique learned at her father's elbow. The rough composition is done with yellows or light browns, then quickly followed by darker hues. A painting is often finished in three to four hours.

When she's not painting, Kartika spends time at her father's open-air museum in Yogyakarta restoring his work. The heat, humidity, and pollution are taking a toll. In 1980, she went to Vienna (where she met her second husband) to learn paint restoration.

``Those paintings are like my own brother and sister. We grew up together. The early work of my father was in 1936. I am born in 1934. You see? When they are damaged, I feel sad. I would like to take care of them. This is how I give my respect, my love to my parents.''

Even as a grandmother of 14, when Kartika mentions Affandi, her voice resonates with the young girl's love for Daddy. But since he has stopped painting, she concedes a sense of freedom. ``I feel I have something else now to give. I'm not sure I can tell you with words.''

Monitor writer David Clark Scott recently traveled throughout Indonesia with other journalists and is reporting on his trip in a six-part series that appears weekly.

1. Impressions of Jakarta 2. Demise of the person-powered `becak' taxi 3. Haggling for wares in an open-air market 4. Why Indonesians point with their thumbs 5. Today: Artist Kartika Affandi K"oberl 6. Bali, a bit of heaven on earth

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